In January 2012, I took a class taught by Justin Peters at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary entitled “Theology of the Word of Faith Movement.” One of the assignments we were given was to attend a Word of Faith church or conference in the area and write an essay detailing our experience.. I chose to attend T.D. Jakes’ church in Dallas: The Potter’s House. The article to follow is the substance of the essay I submitted.
I attend a church that rents space in another church’s building, so we alternate our service times with them. We usually meet at three o’clock in the afternoon on Sundays. On March 25, 2012, I woke up earlier than I’ve woken up on a Sunday in years. At 8:30am, I found myself having coffee with my friend John, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and a fellow member at my church. He had agreed to go with me to visit The Potter’s House, the home church of Bishop T.D. Jakes, a well known prosperity preacher and Oneness Pentecostal. What we witnessed that day was baffling to put it lightly. At times, the “service” was theatrical. At times, it was compelling. At times, it was confusing. However, at no point would I classify what was transpiring before my eyes as true, godly worship from God’s people.
From the Car to the Pew
John and I rode together from the diner to The Potter’s House. Having attended predominantly black churches growing up, John had made a point to visit Jakes’ church early on in his seminary career. So, I decided early on to take all my cues from him. However, it had been a few years since he first visited the church so, as he would later tell me, there were many things that caught even him by surprise.
The parking lot was on the other side of the street and, as with many mega-churches today, they had quite a few men out in the parking lot directing traffic. Like sheep, we were directed through every turn until we found our parking spot. Emerging from the passenger side of John’s vehicle, the first thing I noticed was the amount of skin and tight dresses that marked the average female attendee. I had to keep my eyes on John and focus hard on our discussion the whole way to the church in order to remain pure in thought. In hushed tones, we discussed cultural and geographical standards of modesty until we got to the front door of the church building.
Walking through the glass double doors, the first thing that struck me was the likeness the building shared with a convention center or concert hall. The walls were carpeted and there were men in suits standing near the doors leading into the main sanctuary who looked as though they were there to check tickets. To the far right of the lobby area was the bookstore. John told me that the last time he was at The Potter’s House he visited the bookstore, and it was full of nothing but Jakes’ books and DVDs. He insisted that we go and see if it had changed at all since his last visit.
I will say that I was struck by the sheer amount of T.D. Jakes merchandise that lined the walls and filled the displays, especially his new book Let It Go. There were other authors represented in the store, though. Interestingly, there were quite a few copies of Voddie Baucham’s book What He Must Be …If He Wants to Marry My Daughter on one shelf. Voddie Baucham recently appeared on James White’s podcast The Dividing Line where he explained how he had backed out of his commitment to participate in James MacDonald’s The Elephant Room 2 conference, because he did not want to be seen as endorsing another panel member: T.D. Jakes. Although Voddie Baucham does not endorse Bishop Jakes’ teachings, it appears Jakes endorses his. Exiting the store, I felt the urge to check my pockets and make sure I had not accidently placed any merchandise in them as I passed through the scanner while being stared down by a foreboding security guard.
What Transpired Over the Next Two Hours
Upon entering the main sanctuary, John insisted we sit on the far back pew. As we slid in, he said, “I’m going to sit down,” with a look on his face that suggested, “You can do whatever you want to do, but I’m not participating in any of this mess.” As I had already been doing, I followed his cue and sat down. Little did I know, but what I was to witness over the next two hours was nothing short of chaos. There was no real structure to the service, at least not one of which anyone not in leadership could have been aware.
The service began with a woman, obviously worked up into a sweat, leading the people through a high-intensity, heavy-breathing, over-dramatic prayer thing. I say “thing” because it was not quite as apparent that she was praying to God as much as she was putting on a show for the people. The people seemed to love it though, as they were just as worked up as she was. She then commenced to lead the people through some announcements until she was suddenly interrupted by Bishop Jakes, at which point she grabbed her notes and out of an almost worshipful show of reverence toward Jakes shuffled off the stage not to be seen again for the rest of the service.
The announcement that prompted Jakes’ interestingly timed interruption was the announcement of his latest movie. He picked this particular service to announce that he would soon release a follow-up to his first movie Woman, Thou Art Loosed. He explained that it would not be a sequel, but the second in a long series of unrelated stories that showcase the trials and victories of “real” people. He lamented that no movies being released today show people struggling with the things with which the people he knows struggle. Suddenly, the lights went dim, and a trailer for the movie was shown. After the trailer, the people erupted in fanatical applause.
Next was the praise and worship time which was hard to follow because, again, the person of God was not the unmistakable focus of the praise and worship, except perhaps in word. There were dancers who looked more Hindu than Christian as they twirled and waved silken scarves in the air. Those leading the singing seemed more concerned with performing for the people than leading them in worship and admiration of God. Sadly, I cannot say that there was any element in this spectacle to which I had not already been exposed in Southern Baptist mega-churches. Nevertheless, I would argue that, wherever this type of performance exists, it is not God-honoring worship. By about the fifth song, John leaned over to me and said, “Have we really been here an hour already?” Later, he would explain that he was dismayed at the lack of emphasis on the word of God. We had been at “church” for an hour, and the word of God had not been referenced even once.
The real chaos did not begin to ensue, however, until Jakes took the pulpit. He preached from one of Jesus’ parables: the parable of the wicked servant from Matthew 18:21-35. He used this passage to argue that Christians must forgive if they hope to be forgiven. In essence, he argued that Christians ought to behave a certain way in order to incur the same from God. This type of theology is at the heart of the Word / Faith movement. At the heart of the movement is the desire to get God to do what one wants God to do. Thus, their sermons are more like a series of “how-tos” than an actual explanation of the word of God. Throughout the message, as Jakes weaved in and out of stories and emotional pleas, the organ played in the background, the people were in and out of their seats and, at times, men and women were seen running up and down the aisles with banners and blankets waving in the air over their heads.
Perhaps the most heretical moment in the entire service was the taking of the collection. At this point, the prosperity gospel was put on full display. Jakes assured his people that their sufferings and hardships were directly linked with their lack of giving. Also of note was the fact that it was perhaps the most ordered part of the service encouraging the people to participate in blatant, open, emotional shows of penitence and worship.
Jakes is perhaps one of the most dangerous of all the Word / Faith teachers, because he has mastered packaging his product in a somewhat evangelical package. His preaching is nothing you will not hear in some of the least discerning of Baptist churches. His style of worship is nothing that one should not expect when attending African-American churches of all stripes: Pentecostal, Baptist, non-denominational, etc. However, he has still neither repented of his Modalistic teachings nor denied the orthodoxy of those who teach the same. Similarly, he has not forsaken the damnable prosperity gospel, but rather teaches it openly. This was truly an eye-opening experience.